Schoolteachers in England are being advised to look to Singapore, Taiwan, and other successful Asian countries if they want to reverse a steep nationwide decline in mathematics ability among their pupils.
They are also being urged to hold students back for a year if they fall behind, rather than let them flounder and end up as adults unable to handle simple math problems.
The advice, offered by the government-appointed Office for Standards in Education, is based on a survey of 13-year-olds in nine countries around the world. It has sparked a wide-ranging debate not only about math teaching, but about educational methods in general.
The study showed that students in England correctly answered only 53 percent of math problems put to them, compared with 79 percent in Singapore. Its author, David Reynolds of Newcastle University, notes that the performance of math pupils in England has "fallen sharply" in the last 30 years. England's schools are run separately from those in Scotland and Wales.
Professor Reynolds says the situation is "so worrying" that the risk involved in "looking outward and trying new teaching practices" from other countries is worth taking. He pinpoints Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea as "models that merit close study by our own teaching profession." Teachers' unions, which have been in conflict with the government for some years, have reacted cautiously to the survey.
Douglas McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Britain's largest teachers' union, said it deserved "careful study," adding: "Teachers are open to new ideas and should be drawn into purposeful consultation."
Reynolds's findings call into question a method of teaching introduced into British classrooms in the 1960s and vigorously defended ever since by Mr. McAvoy and other leaders of the profession. This approach, according to Reynolds, involves concentrating on the brightest pupils and neglecting the needs of a "long trailing edge of underachievers."
He says that in Singapore, Taiwan, and some European countries such as Germany and Switzerland, a "whole class" approach is used in which all pupils are required to reach minimum standards.
Reynolds argues that "whole-class interactive teaching" has the advantage of constantly challenging all pupils, preventing many pupils falling behind.
On a visit to Taiwan, Reynolds found that the whole-class approach was almost universally used. Pupils who failed to meet the minimum standard were held back for a year, while those racing ahead could be moved to a higher class.
Reynolds has produced his findings at a time when the teaching profession in Britain is under pressure from the government and parents alike to reassess its role and reevaluate its methods.
A government "skills audit," published in June and based on interviews with the heads of multinational companies, showed that only 45 percent of British adults attained a reasonable level of competence in math compared with 70 percent in Germany and 63 percent in France.